The EPA announced Tuesday a list of 62 schools in 22 states where the outdoor air will be tested for toxic air contaminants. The agency will work with state and local officials to begin the monitoring at the selected schools within three months.
While the EPA and state and local governments already operate air pollution monitoring networks that collect information on a variety of air pollutants, this will be the first time school-yard air quality will be the focus of their investigations.
The contaminants to be tested vary depending on the school. But the focus is toxic chemicals that are known to cause cancer, respiratory and neurological problems - especially in children, who are more susceptible than adults because they are still growing.
The monitors will measure the air for gases as well as solid particles such as heavy metals and soot, the EPA said.
"EPA, state, and local officials are mobilizing to determine where elevated levels of toxics pose a threat, so that we can take swift action to protect our children at their schools," said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. The agency will spend $2.25 million purchasing the monitors and paying for the laboratory analysis.
The schools were chosen because of their proximity to industrial facilities or other sources of pollution.
The list includes an elementary school and middle school in Deer Park, Texas, with about 1,500 students. The schools are located about one-quarter of a mile from the petrochemical plants and refineries that line the Houston Ship Channel.
Matt Lucas, a spokesman for the Deer Park Independent School District, said the district was notified of the monitoring on Monday. The school already cancels recess on days when smog - a persistent problem in the Houston area - reaches dangerous levels.
"Of course, we are going to cooperate and we look forward to seeing the results of the study, and we hope the EPA will advise us accordingly," Lucas said.
Three schools in Birmingham, Ala., near pipe and steel manufacturing plants also made the EPA list.
Michaelle Chapman, a Birmingham City Schools spokeswoman, said that one of the schools, Lewis Elementary, had already been monitored and the district was waiting for the results.
"We are not aware of any health problems that children who attend these schools are experiencing because of air quality," she said in a statement.
She said an EPA official who contacted the school in December urged parents not to panic.
The full list of schools that will be monitored can be found on the EPA's Web site.
Once in place, the new equipment will collect air samples on 10 days over a month. The EPA will cease monitoring at the school if the results show good air quality. But if high levels of contaminants are detected, the agency will take steps to reduce the pollution.